On Democracy and Diversity
The Barbados I declaration was an early and extremely influential document written by an
international group of academics in support of Indigenous peoples' struggles. It is accompanied
by an introduction by Stefano Varese, Professor of Native American and Chicano Studies at the
University of California in Davis and one of the group's founding members. This declaration
originally appeared in Abya Yala News.
In 1971, on the Isle of Barbados, a group of Latin American anthropologists met under the
auspices of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and the World Counsel of Churches. The
meeting took place at a time when the expansion of development in Amazonian indigenous
territories was escalating and when the modernization project of dependent capitalism met with
strong resistance from the indigenous and peasant peoples of the Andes and Meso-America.
Simplistic political interpretations which employed an analytical framework overly concerned with
economic issues hid the reality of ethnic conflicts during that neocolonial period. Leftists argued
that only the triumph of a socialist revolution would solve the problems which indigenous groups
The Barbados Declaration I which resulted from that meeting, and the long book documenting it,
had strong repercussions among academics, the indigenist sectors of the State bureaucracies,
Catholic and Protestant missionaries, and, most of all, among organized indigenous groups.
Barbados I took on an autonomous life of its own among some Indian organizations in Latin
America, who adopted it and used it as an instrument of struggle.
Six years later, in 1977, the group met again in Barbados, this time accompanied by a matching
number of indigenous leaders and intellectuals. By this time, the Latin American political context
had suffered a radical change. The national political projects for reform in Chile, Peru, Bolivia and
Panama had been defeated and the most violent forms of State repression and terrorism had been
instituted in a great number of the countries of the region. An armed revolutionary struggle
seemed a real possibility to many of the continental indigenous movements. The Barbados
Declaration II reflected this new reality. Unfortunately its impact on national societies and the
organized indigenous movement was not of the same magnitude as the previous one.
Finally, in December 1993, the Barbados Group met again in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to asses the
situation of the indigenous populations in the context of the sudden attack of Neo- Liberalism and
renewed forms of Neo-Imperialism. The new conditions facing the indigenous movement at the
end of the second millennium include the collapse of the socialist "utopia," the vertiginous
expansion of drug trafficking, the involvement of the United States in the promotion and
repression of drug trafficking, and the rise and urgency of environmental issues.
The Barbados Declaration III, and the book that accompanies it (to be published by Abya Yala
Press in Quito) address some of these problems in an attempt to clarify them and to contribute the
construction of a more just and dignified future for the indigenous people.
Barbados Declaration III: Articulation of Diversity
More than two decades after our first declaration (1971), the members of the Barbados Group
gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to reflect on the situation of the indigenous peoples in Latin
America and to confirm the persistence of secular forms of domination and exploitation that affect
them. The development of new forms of colonization have aggravated this situation. We are
witnesses in each of our countries to the repeated violations of their right to life, their dignity,
and to the cultural and human universe of their local expressions.
At the same time we confirm the Indian peoples' will to resist and to live, expressed through the
multiplication of their ethno-political organizations, and of the centennial daily affirmation of
cultural specificities that manifest the force of their civilizing projects.
The above stated, together with their demographic growth, defies the current project of
globalization, which leads us towards a world-wide homogenization that is constructed by the
expansion of and domination by a western-oriented integrationist market system, with
multi-national financing in its technical, economic and ideological ways. This pursued uniformity
generated profound political, economic and social asymmetry, even in the dominant countries.
The individualist and competitive Neo-Liberal discourse imposes and masks the real make-up of
the growing inequality and of the conflict between nations, ethnic groups, classes and other social
groups, creating an illusory equality, when in reality it confronts nation against nation, people
against people, community against community. This is contrary to the spirit of solidarity of
communities which is more conducive to human kinship. A world without alternate communities,
without differentiated social groups, would be a world condemned to a lack of creativity and
Just as for centuries each ethnic group was forced to integrate and incorporate itself into the
ineffable virtues of an ill-defined national life, the same compulsive proposition is currently made
to Latin American countries, with the intent of cementing their integration and incorporation into
a planetary order controlled by a type of transnational oligopoly.
Simultaneously, the scientific knowledge brought by ecology, together with the well-founded
warnings of environmentalism, have been misinterpreted and redefined by a tendency within this
social movement. It seeks to impose the theory of the global management of natural resources but
it ignores or minimizes the vernacular wisdom and knowledge, considering them incapable of
creating a global environmental solution. However, this knowledge constitutes the social bases
that maintain the bases of biodiversity in the world.
Today, the forces that dominate the regions with the greatest biodiversity have grown. Territories
that were before the exclusive lands of indigenous peoples have been opened to colonizing
expansion with the purpose of expropriating the tropical regions' enormous natural reserves like
oil, minerals, timber and hydroelectric sources. This distorting tendency presents obstacles to the
alliance of the diverse human communities that defend the ownership and usage of the natural
resources under a socio-environmentalist current, which constitutes one of the most accurate and
effective criticisms of the Neo-liberal premises of unlimited growth.
We observed the existence of processes for ethnic reaffirmation, conducive not only to cultural
reproduction but also to the recovery of loyalties and patrimonies which were apparently lost. In
the face of this the dominant society responds with new forms for the destruction of diversity,
with obstacles and repressive political and judicial changes. Furthermore, the persistence of
multiple forms of racism that disqualify and destroy experiences of alternative civilizations is
generating processes of "de-indianization," which ignores the fact that each culture destroyed or
terminated is an irretrievable loss for the whole of humanity.
The increase in violence that afflicts Latin America which is manifested in the drug wars, the
critical poverty, the increase in crime, compulsory displacements of the population, massacres and
epidemics, impacts the indigenous populations in a dramatic way, diminishing their own political
capacity to fight for their rights. The problems are of such a scope that their solutions cannot be
found within the current judicial framework that treats them as a mere aberration of the current
situation. Thus, the notion of human rights has to be widened to include the social, political and
economic rights of each social and ethnic group, as well as that of the indigenous peoples in
Democracy, as the philosophy of a Western social system, is centered on the individual and
excludes collectives like indigenous peoples. In this way an objectively viable plurality has been
denied at the linguistic, social, economic and cultural levels. The non-deferred democratization of
Latin America will continue to be an empty discourse and favorable only to the groups with
hegemonic power if it does not contemplate the necessary redefinition of the territorial, political,
social and cultural spaces conformed by the current States. A future democratic construction
assumes an increase in the presence and representation of different cultural communities and the
respect for their political logic, which will contribute to the formation of pluralistic, united, and
Construction of Autonomies
The fragile Latin American Democracies, still monopolized by the interests of conservative
sectors who in their majority descend from old European and colonial elites, were not capable of
generating political spaces and legislative and administrative mechanisms that allowed the
indigenous people to move forward in the construction of their own future. In particular, the
military ideologies which frequently degenerate into a geo-political paranoia, consider that
indigenous societies do not constitute differentiated peoples but rather potentially subversive
groups, and so they treat them as a threat to national unity. The revindications of indigenous
peoples on territorial reorganization and more cultural and linguistic autonomy are thus seen as
We exhort the presidents of the republics of Latin America to comply with the promise made to
the indigenous peoples in the Declaration of Guadalajara (Mexico, July 1991), in which they
solemnly promised to ensure their economic and social well being, as well as to the obligation of
respecting their rights and cultural identity. We also believe it necessary to approve the Charter of
the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which the UN promoted as well as the OIT in its Agreement
We make the same demand to legislative and judicial powers and to political parties that they
frame their laws, resolutions and activities with a respect for ethnic pluralism and the inalienable
rights to life, land, freedom and democracy. And especially, for them to carry through an effective
effort to guarantee the respect for these rights at the level of the regions or territories where
indigenous peoples live.
We recognize the initiatives formulated in recent years by international organizations (United
Nations, UNESCO, Organization of American States, UNICEF, OIT and others) in favor of the
indigenous peoples of the continent and the world. Nonetheless the results have been limited.
More pressure and vigilance on the current situation of indigenous peoples is necessary. The
international organizations must pressure the Latin American chiefs of State to ratify and comply
with international conventions on indigenous peoples.
Also, the international organizations for development and finance (World Bank, IDB, IMF) must
make it a priority that their policies not damage the rights of indigenous peoples; equally, they
must reject economic state or private projects that affect the land or primary patrimonies of
The growing presence of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the projects of indigenous
peoples merits serious consideration every time we detect a double intent in their activities. On
one side their proliferation signifies the strengthening of Civil society that demands that the State
fully exercise its responsibilities, and in many occasions they become strategic allies in the struggle
against the homogenizing globalization of the many human communities and in defense of social
rights. On the other side, we have also recorded the unfortunate manipulation of some of them
who act pragmatically, without critical reflection. They lack an integral vision of the role of
indigenous peoples in the global context and act without knowledge of their specific cultural
realities. This benefits only individual ambitions for power and degenerates into a MODUS
VIVENDI and other mechanisms of mediation. All of this climaxes in the increase of pressure on
indigenous peoples which creates confusion, backwardness and even wear and tear on their
There exists a simplistic and erroneous vision of what indigenous participation should be in the
actions and elaboration of indigenist policies, in the formulation of community programs and of
aid, and in the political process of mobilization of the civilian society itself. Such perspective
assumes that indigenous peoples simply copy models of organization from syndicates or other
sectors of the population. The ethnic continuity of indigenous peoples cannot be solely
understood as territorial control, but it requires the incorporation of political conceptions that are
part of the diversity of their cultures.
Indigenous organizations have fulfilled a fundamental role in the revindication of the rights of the
peoples they represent and in the construction of spaces for dialogue with each other and national
and international powers. We cannot omit the mention that some of their leaders have abused the
mandate of representation they received from their peoples and communities to embark upon a
career of personal accumulation and power. When they assume the "CRIOLLO" model of
CLIENTELISMO, and, not a few times, of corruption, these leaders not only discredit themselves
but they threaten the continuity and potential of political projects upon which indigenous
We believe that the indigenous organizations should reflect on these problems and rectify the
individualist and competitive behaviors of the leaders that have distanced themselves from the
spirit of solidarity in which their organizations were formed, this being the only guarantee for
progress toward the crystallization of a just society, not only for the indigenous people but for all
of the oppressed sectors of humanity.
Too often many of Latin America's intellectuals continue to produce speeches referring to
supposedly homogeneous national communities, devaluing or lending a folk stigma to alternate
cultural presences, which are not taken into account in the formulation of a shared future. It is
equally necessary to mention the responsibility that belongs to the historical right wing in the
formulation of the ideological paradigms that guide the cultural and physical repression of
indigenous peoples. On the other hand, some dogmatic sectors -guided by theoretical mistakes-
produced political practices that have contributed to the repression of ethnicity by considering it
counterproductive to the class struggle.
It is also necessary to realize a radical questioning of some currents in the social sciences and in
certain anthropology which is oriented more toward the aesthetic and sterile critique of its own
disciplines than to political thought and action. This is also the case of a sector of linguistics that
does not cooperate with ethnic communities, as well as not favoring the most appropriate
methodologies for codifying, recovering and consolidating autochthonous languages.
There have been advances in the formulation of bilingual and intercultural educational policies,
but these are far from being implemented. Education often places children against the family
environment--even from the pre-school level--at critical times of primary socialization and
learning of their mother tongue. This results in a subsequent deculturation in which languages are
converted into crutches for the acquisition of the dominant language and their own culture is lost
to the hegemonic society. Whereas until now the State as well as private and religious groups has
used the formal educational system to undermine ethnic identity, the school can eventually
become a factor for cultural reproduction if indigenous people effectively appropriate it for their
own historical and cultural interests.
Indigenous people have an undeniable right to their history and cultural heritage. It is the
obligation of the State and of secular society to promote an orderly and effective process for
returning the knowledge collected on such peoples.
The medical establishment should refuse to participate in birth control as a mechanism to temper
some economic and social problems in indigenous communities, which are always vulnerable in
terms of their demographic integrity. Also, it should collaborate in a more decisive and committed
way in the formulation and application of preventative health policies, including the legitimation of
ethno- medicine as a fundamental contribution of ethnic cultures for all of humanity.
We salute the search on the part of some economists for the design of alternative economic
strategies to neoliberal policies. These strategies stem from an autonomous development of
productive forces and they understand culture to be intrinsically opposed to the proliferation of
savage capitalism. We share with them the position that the State has the right and the obligation
to safeguard the economic interests of the dispossessed and honor an egalitarian redistribution of
We recognize the transformation operating in the progressive current of the Catholic Church
which, in the last 20 years, has attempted to reformulate ecclesiastical practice to include respect
for indigenous religions. Nonetheless, the majority of this institution continues to play an
hegemonic role that acts against Indian values and cultures. On the other hand, in recent years we
have seen signs of ambiguity and breakup in the dialogue between missionaries, indigenous people
and social scientists.
We also condemn the ethnocidal practices of some Protestant Churches which are often
responsible for the fragmentation and de-politization of indigenous peoples. In this context we
champion the unrestricted recognition of the multiple forms that their religions take, among them
the autonomous native churches, today persecuted and stigmatized by the dominant churches.
A process of democratization of Latin America that effectively includes indigenous peoples will
not be viable if it does not take into account the necessity for geopolitical reordering that
contemplates the specificity of the forms of territoriality of the indigenous peoples. In this sense,
the concept of "peoples" corresponds to socially-organized human populations which are
ethnically defined and endowed with a spacial dimension that is their territory. This is conceived
as the confines defined by the total and structured set of ecological, social and symbolic relations
between a society and the geographical continuous or discontinuous space upon which it acts.
This should include the numerous cases in which indigenous peoples have been divided by State
borders, where it is their right to aspire to circulate freely in the territory of these bordering
nations, in accordance with contextual situations.
In any case, territorial autonomy will imply not only decision-making in the case of natural and
economic resource use but also in political and cultural self-determination, in the framework of a
self-determination compatible with and complementary to the sovereignty of constituted national
Rio de Janeiro, December 10, 1993.